Back in July 2014, while going through the interview process for what eventually became my career-defining job in Marketing, I was told to come up with a publicity campaign for a popular smartphone brand and include a “Big Idea.”
At the time, I was aware that Nigerian marketing campaigns basically boiled down to any number of variations of the same basic formula. This formula was, “place PR content in print media, pay for coverage on online “new media” platforms like Linda Ikeji, do a cheap but (hopefully) noisy experiential campaign, and drive conversations on social media using a hashtag and a celebrity influencer.
I decided I wanted to differentiate myself, so I came up with a campaign that tore the entire rule book up, blurring the line between advertising and PR, and completely eliminating the formulaic process so that all that was left was the “Big Idea.” My Big Idea was to take a couple of completely unknown, nondescript people from the streets of Lagos and use saturation marketing to turn their faces into overnight celebrity figures without explaining why or attaching any marketing content to them. Eventually, when enough people on social media and offline began to ask who and what these people were, they would be unveiled as marketing props for the phone brand.
My soon-to-be-boss loved it. It took the tired, clinched concept of the celebrity influencer and completely subverted it, turning it into a self-aware joke while being a potent marketing symbol at the same time. It was exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that he was looking for, and I got the job.
The problem was that as soon as I got the job and it was time to work on the campaign for real, the client had informed us that while they loved the idea, they just wanted us to do another bread-and-butter Bella-Naija-and-celebrity-endorsement campaign. The Nigerian audience, the client said, did not need that much effort or investment, so there was no need to go all out. How right he would turn out to be, I had no idea.
The same tricks over and over again
This scenario repeated itself multiple times throughout my time in Marketing. One time, it was a client with very deep pockets that wanted to become the headline sponsor of the Nigeria Professional Football League. For the launch campaign, I came up with the idea of throwing fliers and confetti from a low-flying helicopter over the areas the client wanted to reach with the message. Again the client loved it – “Loved it!” he stressed – but not enough to put some budget behind it. The same reason was given – why should we spend $40,000 to reach our audience when we can spend $6,000 and reach them with the same level of effectiveness?
And the thing was, even putting aside the fact that the entire deal fell through when the client wouldn’t agree to pay a huge sum into the personal account of a member of the League Management Committee (LMC), it was certainly true that no matter how mediocre or uncreative a marketing campaign was to my eyes, it made no difference to the Nigerian audience. All you needed was one or two celebrity influencers/endorsements, some sponsored media hype and a social media hashtag, and The Great Nigerian Unwashed would come stampeding through with their viewership and engagement metrics, and you would hit your KPIs. You did not have to think very hard or come up with too many new ideas – they would simply fall for the same thing every single time.
It hit me last week that this was the basis of something that has been bothering me ever since the election season kicked off a few months ago in Nigeria. Having had a front row seat at the Marketing Communications show of force that was the 2015 elections, a naive part of me expected or at least hoped that the intervening seven-locust years would have been enough to break the spell. Surely this time, even the least intelligent Nigerian with the most mental inertia would have figured out that the messages of 2015 were all hot air, and should not fly once again in 2023. But clearly, for a self-described pragmatist, it seems I never learn.
“Yoruba Lokan! Peter Obi is IPOB!”
Maybe it was the resurgence of the 2015 narrative that tried to present the election as some sort of heroic ethnic struggle for survival between the Yoruba and the Igbo. Maybe it was my own memory of those cursed times, when one of my colleagues at work – an educated lady with a BSc. from Covenant University – proudly declared that she was voting for APC because “Bola Tinubu is my tribe man.” Maybe it was the realisation that I was being individually attacked, not for my political sympathies per se, but because as someone from the southwestern geographical landmass of Nigeria, I was apparently supposed to fall in behind the self-anointed “leader of the Yoruba,” which I refused to do.
As days have gone by, it has become increasingly clear that the same tired template used to hack voters and win the 2015 election is being rehashed here – and it is having the same old effect. Once again like in 2015, all manner of anonymous sock-puppet social media accounts are springing up, spewing neo-Hitler rhetoric about Igbo people and indigenous non-Yoruba ethnicities in the southwest, such as the Ogu in my native Badagry. Even so-called “mixed ancestry Yorubas” – a nonsensical designation in a region where genetic non-admixture is a scientific impossibility – have not escaped the wrath of “Tunde37648293” and “Kayode367346834.”
Like in 2015, despite the clear and obvious reality that these narratives are sponsored and curated by Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s campaign machinery as his divide-and-conquer vehicle to electoral victory, the narratives are winning once again. The brief few moments of clear-headedness that characterised pan-ethnic movements such as #EndSARS have now ended. In their place have returned the primordial soup of ethnic slurs, unthinking tribal loyalty and the worst kind of horse trading in the Nigerian political arena.
Once again, the heroin bagman-turned-political-godfather has managed to convince Nigerians young enough to be his great-grandchildren that while his own daughters can spend millions of dollars on New York real estate without any known source of income, their enemies are each other.
Because in Nigeria, the same trick works indefinitely.